by Mike Duran
When it comes to defining Christian fiction, Tolkien’s epic fantasy is a reminder of the genre’s inherent stickiness. While many Christian readers embrace The Lord of the Rings novels for their literary depth, depiction of good and evil, redemptive themes, as well as the author’s religious worldview, those same readers are not so quick to label the tale “Christian.” Why is this?
However one chooses to define Christian fiction, the following three elements are usually contained therein:
- Author — Christian fiction is written by Christians
- Audience — for Christians
- Message — and contains at least a marginally accessible Christian message
These three earmarks — author, audience, message — serve as a barometer for much of what we call contemporary Christian art.
But by those standards, Tolkien is only 1 of 3. He was definitely a Christian author. (In fact, his greatest accomplishment may, in the end, not be his fantasy trilogy, but his role in C.S. Lewis’ conversion.) Yet in regards to audience and message — two pivotal planks in the prevailing argument — he strikes out.
David Dark, in his book Everyday Apocalypse, expounds upon Tolkien’s “moral aversion” to message-driven fiction:
In his efforts to overcome the popular misreading of his work on Middle-Earth as a project in allegory, J.R.R. Tolkien expressed a distaste for the domineering quality of the allegorical while offering a helpful distinction: “I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader; and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”
“Purposed domination” is a wonderfully illuminating phrase in Tolkien’s explanation not only in regard to what he assures us he isn’t doing in The Lord of the Rings but also concerning a mode of creative expression to which he feels an almost moral aversion. Purposed domination, we might say, is the method of propaganda. It leaves the audience with no room for “applicability,” and the propagandist wouldn’t have it any other way. The tightly controlled “message,” after all, was the point in the first place, not the dignity of the reader or the story (if we can even call it a story).
The very thing Tolkien eschewed, this “tightly controlled message,” is often a defining factor in Christian storytelling. Like it or not, much Christian fiction relies on the “domination of the author” rather than “the freedom of the reader.” As I suggested recently, if it needs interpreting, it ain’t “Christian”. Multiple opinions as to what your novel “means” (especially opinions that lack Gospel distillation) could be evidence that your “message” wasn’t “tightly controlled” enough.
Dr. Ralph Wood, Professor of English at Baylor University and a Tolkien expert, in his wonderful essay, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: A Christian Classic Revisited, states that Tolkien, “…called The Lord of the Rings ‘a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.’ Its essential conflict, he insisted, concerns God’s ‘sole right to divine honour’ (Letters, 172, 243).” But despite the author’s stated intent, Wood affirms that “Tolkien’s work is not self-evidently Christian.”
And herein lies the rub.
Even though J.R.R. Tolkien was a Christian, an expert at his craft, and his work was “fundamentally religious,” it is the subtle, nuanced, non-explicit presentation of those themes that keeps him outside the camp of “Christian fiction.” In other words, the very thing Tolkien decried — i.e., “the purposed domination of the author” and unwillingness to allow “the freedom of the reader” — are the very things that cause many believers to paint his masterpiece as un-Christian (or at least, spiritually neutral).
It makes me wonder whether we have collapsed the boundaries of Christian art too far. Unless there is “explicit Christian themes” and overtly Christian characters, or a “tightly controlled message,” the artist, no matter how Christian she is or how “fundamentally religious” her work, falls outside the pale of Christian art. How many great Christian writers, musicians and artists are not embraced by the Christian subculture simply because their work does not adhere to a predetermined template? Well, if it’s any consolation, neither did Tolkien’s.
So is The Lord of the Rings Christian fiction? Your answer will ultimately determine what you think Christian fiction is or should be.